Since I’ve spent my entire career plying the waters of computers and related technology, I get tagged with all of its failures. When my wife points to the pile of paper she has to shred because “your technology” helps one vendor share her address with 500 other vendors, it’s my fault. When we get the 50th “offer” from Sirius Radio that reads more like a threat, it’s my fault. When the Mars Climate Orbiter crashed into the planet, some of my friends mocked “my technology.” That wasn’t my technology – that was Jimmy Carter’s – he’s the one who failed to convert the US to the Metric System.
See how that works? Jimmy Carter didn’t fail, in fact he’s the only president who even bothered to try to get us to convert to the Metric System but let’s tag him with the failure the same way we’ll tag the contractors with the implementation failures of the healthcare system. I’d say that I’m surprised someone hasn’t tagged me with that, but someone will. I’ll be sitting at a bar some day and someone will say “nice job on the whole healthcare thing” as if I was in charge of the system.
One of my favorite blogs is one called “itkindofgotawayfromyou“ (Actually, it appears to be called “tangentialmeanderings” but I digress). Anyway, the author of that cool blog recently wrote about how the Los Angeles School District is planning to give all students iPads. I won’t give away the story, just do the click thing and read it for yourself, but keep reading this first – his blog is good, but… I commented on his blog:
“Too bad they can’t say “these will pay for themselves because we will be using e-textbooks” but e-textbooks would probably cost more than paper ones and you probably couldn’t use them more than one year or for more than one kid.”
But, that’s not a technology problem is it? No, that’s a greedy book publisher problem. That’s why TechCrunch is predicting that libraries will be obsolete, because it costs so much more to lend an eBook than a real book. It’s the same reason that banks charge you to use a different bank’s ATM. They didn’t charge you extra back when you wrote a check to a merchant in a different city. When someone had to fly that check back to your bank and your bank had to look at it, make some marks on it and then stuff it in an envelope and send it to you – no charge. The “technology” of the ATM network eliminated most of those costs, but that was yesterday’s savings – banks are still greedy today.
The problem with technology, the real problem, is that it changes faster than the world around it. We have eBooks, but we still have book publishers, we still have libraries and we still have people who prefer reading real books – people like me. We have GPS systems and robotics and the technology to let cars drive themselves, but we still have road signs and we still have people driving old cars and we still have people driving British cars that, if you plugged a GPS into the cigarette lighter socket would probably catch on fire.
In theory, driverless cars would be safer. They would be programmed to obey the speed limit, to pass safely, to talk to the car in front of them so they would know when and how hard to apply the brakes. We wouldn’t have to deal with human reaction time and turn signals and people who don’t use turn signals and gestures and people who don’t use gestures. So insurance rates would go down, right? My guess is that no, they would not. I’m guessing that insurance companies would charge more to insure a driverless car because there would be a whole new world of possible problems for which no actuaries can conjure up a prediction. What if the guy who used to work for NASA enters the distance from Hartford, CT to Boston, MA as 162.38 miles instead of 100.9 miles and it causes navigation or speed control problems?
The other big problem with technology is that people don’t understand it. I don’t mean that they don’t understand it like I no longer understand how my car’s engine works, they don’t understand it like they don’t understand String Theory or the notion that time may not exist. When people don’t understand things like String Theory, it’s fine because Best Buy doesn’t sell String Theory. Best Buy sells iPads. Everybody sells iPads and everybody wants an iPad whether they understand it or not. Well, my wife doesn’t want an iPad, but that’s a different story. Why is the LA School district buying iPads? What will the $670 iPads do that a $150 Android device or a $499 dollar Surface or a 99-cent Surface RT (wait a while) wouldn’t do just as well? One thing that was mentioned was test-taking. Hmm, taking what I assume are standardized tests on an iPad; that should really lower the costs paid to the testing service shouldn’t it? Do you think that eTests will be cheaper than the paper-and-two-number2-pencils-required versions? Of course not, the companies that produce standardized tests are every bit as greedy as book publishers and banks so eTests will be way more expensive.
Yet another problem with technology is the combined effect of technology changing rapidly and people always wanting the latest version of stuff they never thought they would have 5 years ago. That’s a future blog post. You’ve been warned.